The salaries of the state's appellate judges would be raised by $2,500, in addition to a 2.5% cost-of-living adjustment given to all judges and prosecuting attorneys, under a proposal approved Wednesday by the panel that sets the pay of state elected officials.
The Arkansas Independent Citizens Commission took the action after discussing the need to create a larger pay gap between circuit judges and Arkansas Court of Appeals judges.
Commissioner Annabelle Imber Tuck -- a former Arkansas Supreme Court justice herself -- said the current $1,575 salary difference between circuit judges and Court of Appeals judges removes much of the incentive for jurists to seek the higher office.
Currently, Arkansas' 12 Court of Appeals judges are paid $169,671 annually, except for the chief judge, who is paid $172,298. Circuit judges make $168,096 yearly.
Under Wednesday's resolution, Court of Appeals judges would be paid $176,475, with the chief judge making $179,168; circuit judges would be paid $172,298. The resolution goes into effect after a 10-day public comment period.
The pay of Supreme Court justices would rise from $174,294 a year to $181,860, while the chief justice's salary would increase from $189,108 to $196,398.
Imber Tuck, in an interview after Wednesday's meeting, said there have been judges in the past who have declined to run for the Court of Appeals because the pay raise from being a circuit judge wasn't great enough. Court of Appeals judges represent larger districts, and they deal with a different type of caseload from circuit judges.
"It would solve what I call 'the internal problem,' which is you'd get a raise when you go on the Court of Appeals," Imber Tuck said of the raise structure she proposed, which was ultimately approved by the full commission.
The Independent Citizens Commission sets the pay for the state's seven constitutional officers, 193 judges, 28 prosecuting attorneys and the 135 members of the General Assembly. However, the commission on Wednesday again delayed making any changes to salaries for state lawmakers or constitutional officers, opting to gather more information before making a final decision in December.
The commission was created by Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution after voters approved it in 2014. The state Legislature previously set the salaries of constitutional officers, lawmakers and the judicial branch.
Last year, the commission voted to give all of the state's elected officials 3% raises, totaling about $1.23 million.
In fiscal 2020, which started July 1, executive-branch agencies were authorized to spend 2.4% more on performance-based salaries for their employees.
The state's appellate judges have complained since the Independent Citizens Commission first began making salary adjustments in 2015 about the salary parity between levels of the judiciary.
Supreme Court justices also have argued that they deserve a higher pay scale because they do not receive mileage allowance like circuit judges and Court of Appeals judges. That is because the Internal Revenue Service has concluded that such an allowance would be taxable because state Supreme Court justices aren't required to live in a certain district because they serve the entire state.
Appeals judges, meanwhile, are elected by district, which can range from three to 18 counties in size. Circuit judges also serve districts, ranging from one to six counties.
Arkansas Chief Justice John Dan Kemp requested an 11% pay bump for the high court's justices in 2017, though the commission declined.
In 2018, Kemp didn't make a specific request aside from supporting the Arkansas Judicial Council's request for a 3% cost-of-living adjustment, but he did again raise the issue of judicial pay parity to the commission. The council is the official body representing the state's judiciary, according to its website.
This year, Kemp requested a $5,000 raise for the justices to make their salaries "more comparably ranked with the Arkansas circuit and appellate judges in nationwide rankings." He did not request an increase for himself.
Kemp on Wednesday said in an email he was grateful for the commission's decision to increase appellate judges' pay.
"The members of the commission have a difficult job to perform and I appreciate the good work they do for the people of Arkansas," he said.
Arkansas justices are ranked 30th among U.S. states and territories, according to the National Center for State Courts' July 2019 survey.
Appeals judges in Arkansas earn the 20th-highest pay in the U.S., and circuit judges make the 21st-highest salary among similar judges in other U.S. states, according to the survey.
The National Center for State Courts also ranks circuit judges' pay with an adjustment for regional living expenses. When Arkansas circuit judges' salaries are adjusted using the Council for Community and Economic Research's cost-of-living index, their national ranking improves to third in the U.S., behind only Tennessee and South Carolina.
Arkansas' median income of its residents ranks 48th, behind only Mississippi and New Mexico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2018 figures.
Faulkner County Circuit Judge Ed Clawson, president of the Arkansas Judicial Council, said he appreciated the commission's work. The Arkansas Judicial Council requested a 3% cost-of-living adjustment from the commission.
"I would just say that the Arkansas Judicial Council appreciates the Commission's consideration of our request," Clawson said in a Wednesday email. "While we had asked for a larger increase I am sure the Commission made a decision they felt to be fair to all who were requesting [cost-of-living adjustment] increases."
As has been past practice, none of the state's seven constitutional officers or General Assembly members requested any pay increase from the commission.
Still, several commissioners said Wednesday they wanted to review those salaries to ensure they were in line with similar states.
Imber Tuck pointed out that Arkansas' auditor, treasurer and secretary of state appeared to be paid well below their counterparts in similar states such as Iowa, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Missouri.
Commissioner Tommy May of Pine Bluff said those salaries should be studied to see if they should be increased incrementally over the next few years to ensure they don't start to lag far behind.
"More of the same produces more of the same," May said.
Asked whether they believe it would prudent to raise salaries for their positions, spokespeople for those three officials deferred to the commission.
"The treasurer feels that the Independent Citizens Commission was set up by the people as a means to provide a fair and unbiased assessment of the salaries of elected officials, and he respects their role and any decision that they choose to make," said Stacy Peterson, a spokeswoman for Treasurer Dennis Milligan, a Benton Republican.
Skot Covert, chief of staff for Auditor Andrea Lea, a Russellville Republican, declined to comment on the issue, noting that Lea has refrained from commenting on the commission because the auditor's office is constitutionally in charge of staffing the commission.
Chris Powell, a spokesman for Republican Secretary of State John Thurston of East End, said Thurston "trusts the wisdom of the Independent Citizens Commission."
A Section on 10/31/2019
Print Headline: Pay raises OK'd for Arkansas appellate judges